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Why Did Charlotte Mason Need to Say it Again?

What is meant by the statement, “Charlotte Mason is not Classical, but is in the classical tradition.” and why do some feel the need to make the distinction?


In the revival of Classical Education, many Christians have resonated deeply with Virtue as the goal of education. Inspired, they have made laudable efforts to use, and adapt ancient thought to the truth and goals of Christianity.


As we consider the Greek thinkers, grace should be offered those who lived before Christ and outside of Hebrew culture. In their understanding that objective truth existed, and in their quest to find ways of knowing it, they, in many ways, cleared a path for the Messiah.


However, it cannot be denied that in the void in which they found themselves living, some of their approaches were necessarily flawed. They often saw correct goals but lacked the ability to reach them – not unlike the Hebrews in their attempts at keeping The Law. They decerned an ideal, but how one was to go about reaching it posed a dilemma… and much conversation.


For both the Greeks and Hebrews, this quest fell under the role of education.




To say that Charlotte Mason is, “in the classical tradition” means that she re- affirmed something that had already been said by the Greeks – put simply: education is about more than utility it is about Virtue. Virtue was classically defined as the ability to think rightly and act in accordance with right thinking. Achieved, this would benefit society, but use was viewed as a pleasant by-product.


In her time, Charlotte Mason expounded on the idea that education should be about goals higher than mere usefulness. From her Christian perspective she taught that education was about cultivating the whole person; feeding and developing all that it means to be human: spirit, soul, and body. She articulated, for the most part, the same goals as the ancients. So, the question is, if the classical Greek thinkers believed and applied this thought to education – why did the world need Charlotte Mason to say it again?


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Socrates spoke and Plato wrote. Collectively their thought was that the goal of education should be to instill Virtue. The tools they offered to reach this goal were: Reason, and The Teacher and while these may seem good recommendations at first glance, upon closer inspection we see that neither form a stable base.


Classical Thought on Human Reason

The primary tool the Greeks utilized in their quest was Reason. They placed immense value on Human Reason, it was the hinge on which all their efforts pivoted. The reason it was so prized and trusted might come as a bit of a surprise.

Both Socrates and Plato taught that the human soul is:


“…immortal and having been born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or the world below, has knowledge of them all” (Socrates via Meno). 


From this starting point they proposed a theory of innate ideas. Essentially, that knowledge of truth could be obtained from within oneself. The process that this was to be accomplished by was what Plato called a “dialectic”.


(Dialectic refers to a purposeful way of reasoning via dialogue to arrive at truth.)


The thought was that once the person unveiled the hidden truth within themselves, (a dubious proposition) they would also obtain Virtue (the ability to act on that truth) because it was inconceivable to them that anyone in possession of truth would act in opposition to it, since to do so would cause pain (another dubious assumption).


This idea of innate goodness is contrary to the Bible’s teaching on original sin. “There is no one good, no not one.” 


The idealistic belief that no one would voluntarily choose to go against the truth they know finds a candid rebuttal in St. Paul’s lamentation “The good I know to do, I do not, and the thing I do not want to do I do!” To put Reason, via a dialectic, as the arbitrator of truth deifies Reason and places it in a position it is unqualified to fill. 


To be fair, even in ancient times the theory of innate goodness had its detractors, among them was Aristotle who said:


“It is quite right, then, to say that it is by doing just deeds that a just man is made, and that a temperate man is made by acting temperately. There is not the slightest prospect of anyone being made good by any other process. Most men, indeed, shirk it and take refuge in the theory of (innate) goodness.”


While Christians will hear hints of truth in this statement (and Luther, and Lewis!), Aristotle’s ultimate premise rests on Reason with stoic application. One can be good if one would just try hard enough.


So, while an educational goal of Virtue was a step in the right direction, ultimately, these men simply didn’t have the rest of the puzzle pieces. Virtue is the goal, but one we can’t reach on our own merits - internal (innate goodness), or external (stoicism), we are people in need of a savior.


Idea have Consequences – So, where did and does the idea of innate goodness and using Reason to ascertain truth lead?


One memorable external consequence of the deification of Reason was the French Revolution, a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes and the guillotine was called in as enforcer.


An internal consequence for the Just-Try-Harder trope tends to be an endless cycle of depression as one continually tries to meet an ideal with damaged equipment. The irony for both is that they block the person from even seeing their need of a savior.


Not only did the offered tool of Reason not work – it damaged.

 

Classical Thought on the Role of the Teacher

The second tool that the ancients employed towards the goal of Virtue was the Teacher. For classical thinkers the teacher held an almost mystical power and sway, and more than that – was encouraged to cultivate this effect. David Hicks explains approvingly:


“Students become the disciples of their teacher… forming around him what in ancient times was referred to poetically as a chorus, or a thiasos (fraternity). Teachers then exercised such a profound influence over their students that the charge against Socrates of corrupting youth was not at all an uncommon one.” (Norms & Nobility)


And again:

“The ancients preferred oral teaching over the impersonal study of the written word. Talk was freer, more intimate, and depended on the teacher’s lively intelligence and superior knowledge…”  (Norms & Nobility) 


And again:

“Classical education challenges both teacher and pupil: the one to justify his superior wisdom and intellectual skill; the other to win his teacher’s praise by matching his performance… The pupils become part of the teacher’s own studies... (a) happy consequence (is) a profound and intimate relationship between the teacher and his pupil.” (Norms & Nobility) 


Once again, we see a too optimistic view of human nature. Like Rat says to Mole’s, “Well that’s good news!”, in The Wind in the Willows:

“If only it were true!”

But of course, it wasn’t --- and it isn’t.


Socrates wasn’t the first, or the last to lead his followers “astray”. History has proven time and again that to be dependent on another human for truth, security and ultimate guidance is risky at best.


The fails and successes of this model form a double-edged sword in this way: the following of a flagrantly unqualified person leads to immediate pain, while the following of seemingly worthy individuals sets the student up to be dependent upon, and possibly prey for, another in the future.


The ancients were correct in identifying the goal of education as being Virtue, but they were blocked from truth in application by the idealism of their humanistic views. In their time it was a noble goal with noble attempts, but in the thousands of years that have passed – it has been tried and proved wanting.


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When I first came to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy, I was largely unaware of the Classical vs. Mason kerfuffle. Her ideas were so cohesively Christian that the ring of truth echoed from element to element. I was drawn to distraction from the application elements of her books, which were more needful to me at the time, to her writings on the Way of the Will and the Way of Reason, as well as to her thoughts on The Role of the Teacher and on Authority & Docility. In hindsight I see why these things are more pivotal than the parts I thought I needed (for utility!) and why they are more pointed than I realized at the time.


In spending so much ink on the fallibility of Reason; the wonders of the human intellect - but also its limits. Its scope - but also its well-defined boundaries, and in emphasizing the part the teacher may play and clearly articulating the parts that they may not, Charlotte Mason was putting her finger on key elements of classical thought that didn’t line up with the Christian faith.


Christians for generations before her were so enamored by the ideals of the classical thinkers that they set dutifully to work to bring them to fruition.


In an interesting parallel I see Ms. Mason as a bit of a Galileo of education. In Galileo’s time the Church was blinded to obvious truths due to their reverence for Aristotle. Galileo came along and while valuing the past – saw clearly where the Church had missed the mark by ceasing to think and look for itself.


Ms. Mason’s Christian faith was the lens through which she viewed the world. From this vantage point she was able to appreciate the goal of the ancients, but also see the flaws in their application. To her credit, she was able to hold on to the good and honor them despite their shortcomings. For her, these men and their thoughts were links in a chain, pavers of a path - but not the culmination of truth.


In her paradigm, shortcomings were to be expected of a people who didn’t yet have the bad news of mankind’s fallen state, the whole picture that made the gospel such good news. Because of this she was able to respect these men, as we should – but stopped short of relying on their flawed applications, and we would do well to follow suit.


Why did Ms. Mason need to restate what had already been said? Because the goals were correct – but the tools were flawed, and those flawed tools had caused much damage to persons, and the ideal itself.


Classical education was alive and well in her day. And while there were no doubt worthy teachers in every generation – improvising flawed tools via divine mercy and insight, the net effect of education was one of impersonal rote often brutally enforced by teachers who were as damaged by misplaced authority as their students.


Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The classical Greek ideal of a god like teacher drawing students to himself via his magnetic personality and flawless powers of Reason, wasn’t in existence, not because it had been forgotten about or hadn’t been tried – but because it couldn’t work in real life, the definitive test of all truth.


Ms. Mason rearticulated the classical ideal of Virtue but brought to it all the truth and beauty, the stability and effectiveness, of Christian thought.


Human Reason is amazing, but it isn’t infallible. It can’t be trusted to define truth. Ultimate truth must come from outside of us, must be higher than us.


We need to be able to Reason well, and here are the places where it is safe to use this tool – but also make careful note of where it isn’t.


A teacher holds a powerful role – and so must remember his place. The student is capable of making direct relationships with knowledge without the need of middlemen. There is no education but self-education.


This isn’t about the teacher – stand aside, facilitate. People may not manipulate other people. Children are people!


To will is to be human and people must be given space to exercise their will and experience the consequences of their actions as part of the calibration of conscience.


There are many things a teacher may do and not violate the personhood of children – but there are just as many that they may not. Beware for their sake and for yours.


These seemingly harsh restrictions placed on Reason and Teachers are a direct recognition that the Holy Spirit is the great educator of us all, something those early philosophers could not have possibly conceived of.


That a god would come down from heaven, become a man, live alongside us, die for us, and send his Holy Spirit to indwell us and instruct us in all truth, is something even their greatest myths failed to fathom. For them this was unimaginable. But for Christians it is truth – this is the paradigm shift we hear and grapple within Ms. Mason’s philosophy and in her method of application.


The Christian idea of “God with us”, truly with us - was the piece to the puzzle that the ancients didn’t have, had to work around - forced them to rely exclusively on human approaches. When Ms. Mason introduces things like Masterly Inactivity, she does this from a distinctly Christian understanding.


Masterly Inactivity is only possible – because there is a teacher who never sleeps.


Nature study becomes a synthetic opportunity to know more about a Creator - instead of an analytic exercise that is dependent on Reason.


That words convey powerful ideas that go into a person and germinate in outward expressions - correlates to a moment in history when The Word became flesh.


These are the things the classical thinkers couldn’t see. These are the things that were shadowed for generations. These are the things the world needed Ms. Mason to articulate. The goal is the same – Virtue, but the tools - the method Ms. Mason offers is full of vitality because it is uniquely rooted in the Christian faith.


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As I ponder home education in our day two patterns strike me as relevant to this conversation, one is the rise of “secular” Charlotte Mason homeschoolers.


That people would see something that works (truth) and want it, and so inadvertently inherit goodness from Christianity seems reasonable to me and even beautiful.


What seems discordant is the second trend – one of Christians clinging to partially informed classical ideas that haven’t work.


As Charlotte Mason’s philosophy gains footing in modern times and begins to lead educational thought, where should we invest our energy in mentoring and training?


The same place that Ms. Mason did – the clarification of Christian thought on The Role of Reason and The Role of the Teacher. When these two facets are understood and in place – the rest of the picture comes together. 

 

Sara Timothy 2024

 



To sum up:

1.       Classical thinkers said that education should be about more than utility. They said it should be about Virtue. For them the key tools to reach this goal were: Reason and The Teacher.


2.       Due to the Christian understanding of the fallenness of mankind – neither of these tools are effective. Our Reason was corrupted in the fall and is not trustworthy in all things. Because of our fallen nature, we cannot be in absolute authority over other people – nor let other people have absolute power over us as power unmasks our corruption.


3.       Charlotte Mason held onto the classical ideal of Virtue (Right Ideas/ thinking and the ability to act in accordance with them) as being the goal of education but disagreed with the tools recommended by the ancients. She wrote extensively on: Reason, The Role of the Teacher, Deputed Authority, Personhood, The Will, Habits, and the Instruction of the Conscience… as well as a lovely and workable (in real life – the test of all truth) method of education.


4.       If you would like to read her writings on these topics, they are clustered most densely in her books: “School Education”, “Towards a Philosophy of Education” & "Ourselves".

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